Monthly Archives: March 2018

Wain’s reading and writing world

 

Any bookshop and any newspaper book review section includes many titles by people you have never heard of, and a recent editorial by Alan Taylor in the Scottish Review of Books brought home the startling issue about the huge number of books which are getting written and published but not read.

Like many bookish children, I once harboured an ambition to be a writer (Leaf Collecting is about as far as I have got) and I once read a stimulating book of advice on the topic, written in the 1960s or early 1970s, specifically on how to write a novel which would definitely be published. I am sure the author was the now deceased novelist and critic John Wain – although infuriatingly I can find no conclusive corroboration on this from the supposedly encyclopedic internet.

Let’s assume the author was Wain. He did not share the axiom that everyone has a book in them. On the contrary, he suggested, an aspiring novelist is an eccentric, a misfit, who shouldn’t expect to find many kindred spirits who will share or understand their dedication or obsession. Writing groups already existed then, but I recall that his opinion was these were merely social distractions which would not help the determined writer to actually write and complete a novel. That dogmatic view certainly helped the literary teenager to see himself as part of an old noble tradition, stuck in his garret, suffering for his art.

Wain was very keen that the serious writer should just sit down and write, regularly, every day. This is advice which might still be offered and followed today. Another tip which seemed however to contradict that one was that you should not attempt to write your complete novel much earlier than the age of 30. This is in a way also perfectly sensible – just out of school or university you’ve got a lot of other things to do – but still exasperating to read when you are ambitious, have a high opinion of your talent and are many years yet away from 30. Later, Martin Amis and Zadie Smith each published their first novels at 24 and Bidisha did at the age of 18.

The classic wisdom that you should always write from your own experience was something Wain shared. I remember his pithy form of expression: “Even if you haven’t had such basic experiences as making love or watching someone close to you die, you still have enough experiences for a thousand novels…” He also insisted that in characterisations you should treat all human beings fairly. To which he added wryly that at one time it would have been necessary to say that even poor tramps are human beings – but now it was probably equally necessary to say that even rich aristocrats are human beings.

At the end of the book was the chapter which is the most relevant to me now. He listed some writers whom all aspiring writers should read. He drew a distinction between writers who were serious and others who were trivial, emphasising that serious writers need not be pompous or turgid or dull. Shakespeare, he said, was one writer who was always serious. Unfortunately I did not copy Wain’s full list of recommended reading and I remember only one title, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When you have read this novel, he said, you actually won’t be any better equipped to write your own novel. But if you don’t read it, he went on (a bit didactic and sententious this, but when you are young you can take very clear directions) you’ll have devalued yourself as a writer and a human being.

Alan Taylor’s article also helpfully calculates how many books people might read in a year, and therefore how many (or few) you might expect to read before you die. My reading speed these days is pitifully slow so my target should be low, and principally works which I’ve been planning to read for three or four decades and never yet got around to. Such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, copies of which sit nearby waiting.

Ulysses was a lot of fun 27 years ago in preparation for my first visit to Dublin, and I feel confident that it would repay a second reading. Actually, I have already managed The Brothers Karamazov, long ago, but I think I still have that copy, so maybe I should give it another chance to provide the value which John Wain promised…

 

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Where the journey is more important than the destination

 

One Holy Saturday morning some years ago, I was struck by a photograph on the Herald newspaper’s front page, showing a group of people from Northern Cross, carrying a wooden cross along the sands of the tidal island of Lindisfarne. (From memory, the picture was similar to this in the Newcastle Chronicle from another year.)

Northern Cross is an ecumenical Christian group which walks several pilgrim routes in Scotland and England every Holy Week, to arrive together at the ancient Christian site of Lindisfarne on Good Friday. To my mind, an inspiring and thrilling adventure.

 

One of the Christian pilgrimage sites featured in “Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve”. Lindisfarne Castle, seen from the church of St Mary the Virgin.

 

Advent and Lent are the Christian seasons of preparation. Appropriate therefore that BBC TV should have screened the travel documentary series Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve during Advent (in 2013) and repeated it during Lent (this year).

I am actually not a great fan of the modern style of television documentary, invariably built around a photogenic presenter endlessly on-screen, with a predictable template of short snippets of commentary mixed with ostentatious pictures, frequent introductions and summaries, aerial camera shots, and rousing music. I was attracted to Pilgrimage more than to Simon Reeve’s other series because of its more substantial and more stimulating narrative thread – as well as because it would feature some places I had visited.

Pilgrimage, making a journey to a place of religious history in order to gain personal spiritual benefit, has been part of all major religious faiths since their earliest days. For his three programmes, Reeve visited famous places of Christian pilgrimage in the UK, in continental Europe and in the Middle East: Lindisfarne, Walsingham, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.

One of Reeve’s repeated points was the different reasons for going on pilgrimage in past centuries. Many people were indeed motivated by Christian devotion, eager to visit places which held sacred relics, and many believed they could thus make amends for past sins. However, some were just looking for adventure (even sinful adventure!), an opportunity to break a monotonous routine, to explore beyond their own town or parish. This meant that a pilgrimage group might bring together people of widely different backgrounds, as shown in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

 

The shrine to St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

 

The growth in pilgrimage in medieval times provided economic benefits to the destinations and to inns and shops and merchants en route, even while pilgrims were sometimes exploited by the sale of false relics. Other secular cultural changes developed over the longer term, suggested Reeve: it was travels to the Holy Land which led Europeans to return to the habit of washing and bathing more regularly at home, and later to British support for Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.

The “golden age” of true pilgrimage ended with the Reformation and Reeve suggested that modern pilgrims are more often “well-off adventure hikers”, interested in the physical challenge as much as the opportunity for contemplation and solitude. However, he also made the thought-provoking point about how many of those medieval pilgrims would have been sick and dying – and therefore how fortunate we are that modern medicine has removed the sound of those desperate prayers for healing and recovery from cathedrals and shrines.

 

In St Peter’s Church in Rome, a plaque listing all of the popes of the Catholic church who are buried there.

 

Another modern pilgrim I am familiar with is Gerard Hughes, who walked from the south of England to Rome in 1975 and described the experience in his book In Search of a Way. Whereas Simon Reeve showed respect for fellow travellers but agnosticism about the Christianity which empowered them, Gerard Hughes, now deceased, was a Catholic Jesuit priest who was definitely making an inner spiritual journey as well as a physical one. Hughes repeated Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”, and added that, for the true pilgrim, “direction is much more important than destination” and that “searching for God is already to have found him.” Reeves extolled the “rhythm” of long-distance walking and one comparable comment by Hughes was appreciation of the Catholic prayer of the rosary, which is similarly rhythmic and repetitive and therefore particularly suited to pilgrims’ walking.

 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Pilgrims at the Stone of Anointing, where, according to tradition, Jesus was brought down from the cross before being buried.

 

Although many of Reeve’s scenes and observations were unsurprising, his concluding observation made a strong impression. At the place of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he said that it was “the holiest site in the holiest shrine in the whole of Christianity… this is (the place where) Christianity was born …the birth of a culture, of a civilisation, so many paintings, so much music, so much joy, so much suffering, so many wars, so much of human history comes from here…”

Reeve’s series had started in Lindisfarne. The Northern Cross 2018 walks to Lindisfarne begin during the Palm Sunday weekend of 23-24 March. As their web-site says, their purpose is to “re-trace old pilgrim pathways…meet and be greeted by people on the way…(and) on Good Friday experience walking across the ancient causeway…”

 

Reference:  Hughes, Gerard W. (1986)  In Search of a Way (2nd ed)   London : Darton, Longman and Todd

 

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